Vol. 12
Caffeine & Concrete Vol. 12

In Search of Lost Liturature with James D. Jenkins

August 2015

Lawyer. Editor. Publisher. Nice Guy.

James D. Jenkins had a successful career in law when he decided to pursue his idea to revive and re-publish out-of-print books. Initially starting Valancourt Books as a side-project, he found a way to turn the company into his full-time job. With an absolute passion for books, reading and reviving literature, James D. Jenkins is bringing neglected classics back into the hands of readers. Volume 12 is a fascinating insight into the world of publishing in the post-Kindle world. Enjoy.

James D. Jenkins--- 2 May 2015

By Lorenzo Princi

What do you, or more specifically Valancourt Books, do?

Sure, well what Valancourt Books does, we basically bring back into print books that have been out of print for one reason or another. We do new editions, paperback and eBook. We focus on Horror, Science Fiction... Also do some literary classics, some Gay interest stuff, we do old eighteenth and nineteenth century classics, we also do some more modern stuff-- kind of a wide variety of things.

You hold several degrees including a Law degree. Why did you decide to move into editing and start your own publishing house instead of pursuing other opportunities within Law?

Well it’s an interesting question, I actually-- way back when we started this, about ten years ago, I had just finished Law school and the job market was really terrible and I couldn’t find any work or anything. I had to do something and had a lot of time on my hands because I couldn’t find any work so-- started doing the publishing. We did our first couple of books. That was back in 2005 and later on I did end up working as a lawyer for several years and kind of did Valancourt Books on the side-- as a side project. Then finally in 2012 I decided to do Valancourt full-time. Practicing Law, just, it was really stressful and not very fulfilling, not a very happy lifestyle. So, I left that behind and do this now, full-time and enjoy this much, much more.

"Practicing Law, just, it was really stressful and not very fulfilling, not a very happy lifestyle."
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Where did your love of books come from? What is it about books that you love?

That’s a good question and yeah, I do have a lot of books, they’ve practically taken over our apartment. It’s funny, like about a year ago, we-- about a year and a half ago I think, we were moving and we got rid of tonnes and tonnes of books. Got rid of them, sold them, whatever and somehow they’re all back again and we’ve got tonnes more. They’ve taken over our new place and we’re getting ready to move again, so we have to move all these into our new house now but they’re everywhere!

I don’t know, I have just always loved books, ever since I was a kid I’ve always read a lot, always found them interesting and always had kind of weird tastes in books. Even as a kid I always wanted you know, sort of the strange books that weren’t always easy to find or were out of print or whatever, and that’s kind of carried over to what we do, with our publishing now.

It’s these things that are kind of off the beaten path, maybe not things that everybody would want to read but things that we think are interesting. So yeah, Ryan (James’ husband and scourer of old books for the Valancourt Books catalogue) and I are big book people. We read constantly and we’re always going to bookstores, libraries, we are always, you know, doing that kind of thing.

"Being in a niche market, with the Horror and the Supernatural and the Sci-Fi and stuff, it actually, it’s a little bit helpful."
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Why focus on such a niche market? Was it a risk? What were the challenges? How did you overcome them?

Yeah, it is challenging because it’s-- it can be very challenging, it can be very frustrating sometimes too when you put a lot of work into something that’s very difficult to get people to even know what you’re doing, and there’s so many publishers right now and so many books coming out. Probably more than any time ever in the history of the world - and so to get our press noticed-- to get people to read our books is definitely a challenge, but we just-- we love what we do and we work pretty much twenty-four hours, seven days a week. We are always on social-media promoting them, we go to conferences and conventions around the country and display the books there.

Yeah, you know? Being in a niche market, with the Horror and the Supernatural and the Sci-Fi and stuff, it actually, it’s a little bit helpful in some ways to have a little bit of a niche there because there are certain groups you know, that you can reach out to and certain conventions and magazines that you can, you know, go to. We’ve had more trouble with some of the more literary stuff that doesn’t really fit into any kind of niche, books that are just sort of old, they’re good books but they’re sort of old good books. It’s harder to find a market for some of those. We’ve done a little better with some of the niche stuff.

Some of the-- when we first started doing this back in 2005, we were doing these old gothic novels, like the seventeen hundreds and kind of built a niche for that too and you know, it’s a small group of people that are interested in that stuff, probably only a couple of thousand people that are interested, but they sort of found us over the years and follow us and keep buying the books. That helps us keep doing it.

"To get people to read our books is definitely a challenge, but we just-- we love what we do and we work pretty much twenty-four hours, seven days a week."
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You seem to have a market with academic circles, is that where those books fit?

Sometimes, actually, we’ve done pretty well with the academic market with some of our older stuff, like the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century-- some of them are annotated editions with footnotes and appendices, things like that for students and we’ve had a pretty good reception for some of those. Some of them with the academic market, with text books, libraries things like that. Yeah...

Have you noticed an uptake in literature of this nature at all since the geek revolution in recent years?

You know, I don’t know. I think, definitely we are a part of that I think and speaking of the geek stuff, we’ve been really lucky recently, we’ve gotten some of the great comic book folks to help us out. We got-- Mike Mignola’s been doing covers, if you know Hellboy. Alan Moore just did an introduction for one of our books and he did Watchmen and From Hell and all those graphic novels, so that’s been real, real exciting for us, we’ve been sort of geeking out over here but yeah, there is some truth to-- especially with like the genre and the horror stuff has kind of the geek factor to it. Not-- geek sort of has a bad connotation to it but you know [laughs].

You’re a fan of gothic literature, especially horror, which at its best plays on the unknown, often manifests in daemons with protagonists who must overcome their personified fears. What drew you to horror and supernatural?

You know? I don’t know, we both-- Ryan especially, he’s the big horror person more than I am, but I’ve always been interested in it. I don’t know why, going back, even as a kid, you know? When I was ten years old I was reading Stephen King books and watching, you know, horror TV series that my parents didn’t want me to see and I had to kind of sneak around to watch them. I don’t know what the fascination is, I guess, you know? People like to be scared I guess and you know, there’s sort of a thrilling aspect to it that’s-- it can make it fun, not always, you know, we try to focus on-- when we do the horror stuff, on stuff that still has some kind of literary merit, not just-- because there’s some horror that’s just really, really bad [laughs]. We try to do stuff that is at least well written and interesting.

"People like to be scared I guess and you know, there’s sort of a thrilling aspect to it."
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You do some public speaking and lecturing, do you enjoy it? How has it affected you?

Yeah, I haven’t done it as much recently, I used to do it more when we were doing more academic type stuff and it-- you know, I enjoy it and it is great to go travel around and talk about what we do and spread the word and that sort of thing but it was a little weird, I’ll be honest. When I was doing it, I was probably, I don’t know, twenty-six, twenty-seven, something like that, you know, and going around and talking to like, these, you know, these professors and academic people and stuff it was kind of-- it was a little weird-- it was you know? And they would invite me to talk about editing and preparing you know, editions of books. It was sort of you know, “do I really have the right to be here talking?” You know, I don’t have any real training or background in this sort of thing, it’s just something I started doing and over the years just kind of learnt it by doing it and-- so it was a little weird at first going and talking about it, you know it was like, “wait a second” you know, “they’re treating me like I’m some kind of expert on this!” [Laughs] but you know, “what do I really know about it?” Or whatever but no, it’s fun. I haven’t done as much of it recently. Lately it’s just been-- we’ve been just working constantly on keeping up with getting the books out and haven’t had a lot of time for much of that kind of thing.

"I don’t have any real training or background in this sort of thing, it’s just something I started doing and over the years just kind of learnt it by doing it."
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There are technically four staff members at Valancourt Books if you include the pets. How do you cope with the workload being just the two of you?

Yeah, well, yeah the pets aren’t much use, [laughs] they, in fact really don’t help at all in fact [laughs]. Other than that you know-- we keep really busy and it-- lately, we’ve been doing, six, seven, eight books a month, which is just totally crazy for two people. You know publishers that are probably five or six times our size don’t release that many books in a month-- you know that are-- so it’s, it’s a little hard to keep up with. Fortunately we like what we do so that makes it easier and we are looking at hopefully slowing it down a bit in the future.

One thing: Because this is our, this is our sole source of income for the two of us, our only job, it’s not a side-project. So we have to make sure we have enough money coming in to pay the bills and keep, you know, feeding the dog and that sort of thing, so that’s one reason we have to work so hard and keep the books coming in. As you know, a lot of these sorts of genres, really old titles, a lot of people maybe haven’t heard of, you know, they don’t sell a tonne of copies. We don’t make a tonne of money off each one, so we have to keep a lot of them coming out in order to keep going. It’s a lot of work, but we are looking to slow down hopefully a little bit in the near future, maybe, like four or five books a month, instead of eight and maybe spend a little bit more time with the animals, you know? Instead of just working all the time! [Laughs]. The dog is actually here at my feet [tilts camera to reveal their Australian cattle dog, Baron].

Books were affected heavily by the advent of the Kindle. Borders was one of the big stores to fall for failing to adapt to the changes. How did Valancourt Books steer through this and why not work exclusively with digital?

Yeah, it’s a weird time right now. Like you said, Borders went out of business and a lot of independent bookstores are closing. There are fewer bookstores, fewer people reading I think, than ever before, and yet more publishers and more books coming out, so it’s a difficult climate, but we do most of ours, most of ours really is done digitally, even the paperbacks are-- they’re printed digitally. We work with a company called Lightning Source that has facilities in the US, the UK and Australia so we can get easy access to you know-- to send books to any of those places, then have access to distribution in all those places which really helps us out.

Increasingly the eBooks have been taking off, it’s about half of our sales now, it used to be about, maybe a quarter or less, but within the past few years or so we’ve been seeing a lot of eBook sales. They’ve been-- you know they’re good and bad in a way for us, they’re good in that you can price something much cheaper, so maybe like an old book, that someone wouldn’t pay fifteen or twenty dollars for but they might pay five dollars for an eBook and then they can read it and we get to sort of get people to read the books again that way. But on the other hand, you don’t make that much money either only selling the eBooks for a couple of dollars, so-- and if they are taking away from the paperback sales then that can become a problem. So it’s kind of a juggling act but with Amazon, it’s a love/hate thing for us with them. They-- we hate a lot of things they do, they’re really-- can be sort of nightmarish to work with sometimes, you know, you send them an email because you’re having a problem with something and you get a robot-- sends you a message back that doesn’t make any sense.

One of our books that we did as an eBook, they blocked it, they said it was “pornographic” or something and they banned it from their website and it was this bizarre sort of robot email signed by like “Bob” or something, like, Bob decided our book was pornographic and that was the end. There was no appeal, you can’t go to the next level up and have someone review, it was like, he’s the end all-- which is kind of frightening in a way because if one person has that much power and can decide what books can be read and purchased is kind of scary. So we’ve had problems, but on the other hand, we couldn’t exist without Amazon unfortunately because the Amazon Kindle right now, about ninety-five percent of our ebooks are sold there. I mean other websites-- we sell them on several other websites but hardly any of our customers use them. And the paperbacks too, it’s you know, everybody-- we’ve tried getting people to, you know? “Hey! Why don’t you use this other website, this other company?” And everybody always used Amazon, so almost all of our sales are coming through them, so while they drive us crazy and really irritate us in a lot of ways and kind of frighten us in a lot of ways with the power they have over the market, we kind of depend on them too unfortunately.

"Kind of frightening in a way because if one person has that much power and can decide what books can be read and purchased."
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Self-publishing is becoming a way for budding authors/content creators to make physical what bloggers have been doing for a while now. How hasthis paradigm shift affected traditional publishing?

Yeah, I think it’s another kind of-- another good and bad. It’s great! Anybody can get their voice out there and can do-- anyone can do what I’m doing, anybody can go get the rights to old books and publish them and start their own company and it’s exciting, it’s great. On the other hand it can be kind of a mess. If you’re looking to purchase a book on Amazon and you go to their Kindle store and there’s like four million books there, how do you know which ones are good and which ones are bad out of the stuff that’s being self-published?

Traditionally, for hundreds of years we’ve had publishers that read all the manuscripts and screen what was good and what was bad and that was sort of-- you could find a publisher whose taste, you know, you trusted or whose books you liked and you could sort of have that as your guide of what to purchase. And if you now just have anybody, putting anything on the web, I mean some of it may be good and a lot of it, probably is bad-- kind of hard to sort through it all. It can be a full-time job to go on there and find what it is that’s good.

So as I say, good and bad, but for us you know it’s been good to be able to get our stuff out there the way that we do, it’s been great.

Yeah, I guess, you don’t go on Amazon to find a book, you go to say, Valancourt Books to find a book you might be interested in buying and simply use Amazon for fulfillment… would you say it’s important to be involved in both sides of curating and fulfillment in order to be successful?

Yeah, to a certain extent that’s true, people go to a bookstore, they find a book they like and then they order it on Amazon and save money that way. You know? I wish we had more-- our books are only in a handful of bookstores, I wish we had them in more because then more people could discover them. It’s hard for people to find us on the web unless they know we are there. Whereas if they are just browsing in a bookstore they might accidentally find one of our books but as of now we are only in a handful of physical bookstores, almost all of our stuff is done online.

What’s next for James and Valancourt Books?

That’s a great question. I don’t know, we’ve already done so much over the last ten years, expanded so many times, you know we started out with the really, really old stuff and we’ve gradually gone-- we’re now, you know, we’re doing modern, twentieth century stuff. We recently did our very first, all original book that wasn’t a reprint and so, you know, where do we go from here? I don’t know.

I just hope we can keep expanding and keep getting the books out, getting people, you know, finding out about them and reading them, because I think, the books that we publish I think are good and people would enjoy them if they knew about them. It’s just a matter of working harder to get the word out there.

A last thought, is it true people aren’t reading anymore? It’s something that I feel I’ve heard for each generation, however we’re all still reading or is it the change in medium that affects the intake. For example is reading something online the same as reading a book or is it too short and sharp, more akin to magazine scanning?

Yeah, I don’t know how to put it, I’d have to look it up but there was something I saw recently of like a survey they did of adults in America and it was really horrifying, it was something like eighty percent or seventy percent, something like that of American adults had not read a single book for a whole year. That’s the sort of thing-- when I see that I think, “Oh my god, maybe I need to look for a different kind of work because maybe the future of publishing is not a good thing.”

I think people are still reading but there’s, like you said just now, there’s so many other things, there’s TV, there are videogames, there’s the internet, so many other competing kind of distractions and you only have so much time to spend because people are working more and more and you know, to pay the bills so they have less and less free time and the time they do have, a lot of it’s going to like what you said, online or something like that.

So I think people are reading less, they are still reading though which is great but-- and I don’t know, unfortunately that that’s going to get a whole lot better in the near future that, you know? How do you reverse that if people-- if people aren’t reading at all and you see it even with younger people where they’re-- younger people aren’t really reading and that’s kind of scary because in the future that’s probably going to continue unless there’s some way to get them loving books as much as past generations maybe did.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens with e-books because they-- like I said, the last year or two for us they sort of really-- almost like doubled in sales but even in the last couple of months I’ve been seeing things that say that maybe e-book sales are declining a little bit, maybe people are going back to the print sales. I’m curious to see what happens.

"How do you reverse that if people-- if people aren’t reading at all and you see it even with younger people."
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Find James at Valancourt Books

Proofreading by Cinzia Forby & Luke Yates.